The Drune asked for recommendations for an old-school starship combat game that would fit in with his Tékumel prequel, Humanspace Empires. I didn’t hesitate to recommend the game that inspired this blog: Starfleet Wars.
Although I’ve dogged on SfW before, saying I’d hesitate to play a game that requires players to use a calculator to figure out their turns, after reading the rules more carefully, I’ve changed my mind about Starfleet Wars. Now I would really like to play it.
Sure, the rules are simplistic compared to modern games like Full Thrust or Galactic Knights, and the mechanics are nowhere near as detailed as the near-contemporary Starfleet Battles. Yes, the movement system is unrealistic as written. Still, the game is good for what it sets out to depict: “a vision of giant spaceships firing laser weapons at each other from thousands of kilometers apart, tractor beams pulling ships together as in eighteenth century warfare and advanced particle weapons punching holes in their targets hulls.”
The root of the player’s decision tree in this game is resource allocation. Unlike many space battle rulesets that let you fire all your weapons, raise all your shields, and proceed at maximum velocity, Starfleet Wars forces participants to make (sometimes hard) choices based on the power available for that ship. Want to fire all your weapons at the enemy? You have to divert power from your deflectors. Trying to catch up to that enemy on the other side of the map? Sure, but you won’t have much juice left for your lasers.
Power allocation is the first step in a Starfleet Wars turn. Each ship starts with a certain number of power units. Despite that term, I consider a ship’s power to represent more than just stored energy. In addition to reactor output, to me a vessel’s power units quantify factors such as available manpower (or robotpower, or alienpower), automated repair systems, and undamaged equipment.
Here’s the catch: offensive, defensive, and propulsion systems require power units equal to the square of the factor you want—in other words, if you want an offensive factor of 3, it costs 9 power units; a defensive factor of 8 would cost 64 power units. Not only that, while there’s no theoretical maximum for offensive and defensive factors, each ship class has its own built-in limits for offense and defense. For example, the Ranger-class cruiser has a starting power of 60, a maximum of 5 offensive factors, and a maximum of 7 defensive factors. Some quick math shows it will never have enough power to set its offensive (cost of 25 power for 5 O.F.) and defensive (cost of 49 power for 7 D.F.) factors to maximum at the same time.
The next part of the turn is movement. I like the fact that movement takes place simultaneously, although in practice that will mean everyone needs to write down their moves beforehand. As noted above, each movement factor (which is 3 inches on the tabletop) costs its square in power units—so a movement factor of 1 costs 1 power unit, a movement factor of two costs 4 power units, and so on. However, there’s a universal limit of 5 movement factors for all ships, which represents just under the speed of light—anything more than that requires a hyperspace jump and removes the vessel from the table.
After all ships have moved, players choose targets and resolve shooting. (The rules don’t mention it, but it seems intuitive that all firing takes place simultaneously as well.) Neither the target’s nor the shooter’s facing matters in this game. To determine how many shots a starship gets, subtract the target’s defensive factor from the shooter’s offensive factor. That’s how many die rolls the attacker gets against that target. The faster two ships are traveling, the harder it is for one to hit the other, but if you’re within half-range, you get a bonus to your die roll. Note that this game uses percentile dice to resolve shots, a mechanic that was still fairly uncommon at the time it was written.
Each hit subtracts a certain number of power units from the target, based on the difference between the attacker’s O.F. and the target’s D.F. Once a ship’s power falls to 0, it means the crew is dead and the ship is now a derelict. It then can be captured and towed, or the opponent can destroy it with one more successful hit. In grand sci-fi tradition, the rules also allow a ship to self-destruct, but only if it has at least 5 power units remaining. Play continues in this manner until one side is destroyed, surrenders, or retreats, or the initial scenario victory conditions are met.
That’s the basic Starfleet Wars game, which is tactical enough to provide interesting player choices and at the same time abstract enough to use as a subset of rules for starship-to-starship combat in a role-playing game. But the rulebook also includes other weapons and options familiar to science fiction fans, which I’ll discuss in part two of this Starfleet Wars review.